Thursday, January 31, 2008


Today is the fourth day in the murder trial for a local woman accused of drowning her 2-year-old niece last May. As the paper's courts & cops guy, I'm providing continuing coverage of the proceedings, which are scheduled to go on for two weeks.

Naturally, it's been horrific from the word go. The little girl, who was wearing a "Dora The Explorer" outfit the day she drowned, suffered a ghastly series of injuries -- her lungs were full of fluid (indicative of a "wet drowning," someone who's been trapped underwater), she had serious bruises to her face and neck, and evidence of sexual abuse was also found on her body.

So there's no way this was going to be the kind of event where someone can sort of blithely go about his business while attending. But on the other hand, I can't say I'm much more comfortable with the morbid fascination involved in covering the case. There are two elements to this: my own interest in the case, which has been piqued by hearing details at the rate of a few per day, and the interest of the paper's readership, which I am representing by continuing my coverage of the trial.

It's not like I'm alone in the public seats in the county court room. There are press people from local TV channels and other newspapers, and while I have yet to see the local radio news DJ, I hear he's at least been cribbing details from the newspapers to include in his daily local news broadcasts.

The whole proceeding reminds me of what scientists call "The Observer Effect." The idea is that the very act of observing any phenomena changes that which is being observed.

In this case, you have a woman accused of multiple counts of second-degree murder and sex abuse. By writing about the trial and connecting her name to the charges and developing details of the case, it seems like I'm condemning her before the jury has rendered their eventual decision.

But other than including material from her defense counsel's cross-examinations (and, eventually, the witnesses he calls to the stand), how else am I supposed to write about it? It's a public proceeding, sure... but does constant, every day coverage of the event deny the defendant the right to a fair trial in the vaunted "court of public opinion"?

It's an academic question -- I've already put on my tie (double-Windsor, thank you... none of that clubhouse slipknot nonsense) and in a few minutes I'll be heading off in the Reichswagen and driving down to Ithaca to hear the third day of prosecution testimony.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Somewhat big things I've not gotten around to mentioning

It's been an interesting process, leaving the military behind (mostly) and adapting to my new life as a civilian working man.

For the first several months after I got home, I did pretty much nothing. There were a couple trips, a few attempts at freelance projects, but I've got little to show for it. There are a few reasons for that, but I think the main one was my natural inclination toward indolence.

Of course, that was only temporary, and by November, I was becoming frantic to get out of the house and be doing something.

In December, I applied for and accepted a position as a staff reporter for my local newspaper. I'm now Cortland's police beat reporter, which is a very interesting assignment. The copy is often very by rote, but I'm learning a lot about civics and the legal process, and the pace at a daily newspaper is a lot more intense than it's been at any of the weekly or bi-weekly papers I worked for in the Army.

Anyway, last week I finally got around to replacing the decimated Road Shark. I don't have a name for my new ride yet, but here it is:

My V-dub

It's a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta GLS, which isn't exactly the road master the Z28 was, but it's got a lot of pickup and by my shaky figuring, insurance costs about a third of what it did for the Camaro. It's silver, like the Camaro was, so I think of the Jetta as the Road Shark's brainier and less-athletic little brother.

So that deals with the latest major updates in my life. I'll tackle something more interesting next time around.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Monkey brains used to control Japanese robots

By now, I think it's pretty much common knowledge that humanity is going to be wiped off the face of the Earth by one of the following catastrophes:

- Zombie outbreak
- Germ pandemic
- Sentient robots who decide to overthrow their meatbag creators

Well, scientists at Duke University have brought us at least one step closer to the third possibility. They've stuck probes into the brains of rhesus monkeys and used the monkeys' thoughts to control robots walking around in Japan.

"They can walk in complete synchronization," said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, who also is the Anne W. Deane Professor of Neuroscience at Duke. "The most stunning finding is that when we stopped the treadmill and the monkey ceased to move its legs, it was able to sustain the locomotion of the robot for a few minutes -- just by thinking -- using only the visual feedback of the robot in Japan."

Implanted electrodes gathered feedback from brain cells of two rhesus monkeys as they walked forward and backward at different paces on a treadmill. Sensors on the monkeys' legs tracked walking patterns while researchers used math models to analyze the relationship between leg movement and activity in the brain's motor and sensory cortex. From there, researchers in North Carolina and Japan determined how well brain cell activity predicted speed and stride.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or to shriek in terror at this development. On the one hand, monkeys are hilarious and always good for a chuckle or two, but on the other, scientists are hooking up electrodes to fucking monkey brains and allowing the monkeys to control robots!

The thing about scientific research is that the vast majority of it is incredibly boring and only meaningful to scientists. That's okay, though, because the scientists are generally benevolent and using their collected data to solve problems faced by humanity, such as how to create the perfect artificial papaya flavoring.

Then you get scientists like the ones on this Duke team, who seem to be hell-bent on bringing on the apocalypse. I can just imagine what's next -- monkeys telepathically controlling Predator drones and Abrams tanks, which will plow over the surface of the planet searching out the terrified human population and committing wanton slaughter.

You read it here first -- 10 years from now, we'll be facing the Robot-Monkey-Zombie apocalypse. When it happens, you won't be able to say you haven't been warned.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Mystery Machine

Being the devout Hunter S. Thompson fan I am, I don't normally take kindly to parody of the man or, especially, his writing.

That said, Fear and Loathing in the Mystery Machine might be one of the funniest damn things I've ever read. The premise, such as it is, is that Hanna-Barbera decided to include Raoul Duke as a guest in an episode of Scooby-Doo.

I don't know if I ever saw a Scooby-Doo episode where the guest wasn't either Vincent Price or the Harlem Globetrotters, but The Good Doctor seems like he would have been a good fit.

A couple excerpts:

We were ten minutes south of San Clemente when the putrid green daisy walls of the van started closing in. I recall the fat four-eyed lesbian sweater girl saying something like "are you okay, Mr. Duke? We've got a mystery to solve..." when suddenly the gullet of the garish chartreuse steel beast began to spasm, as if a digestive track readying itself to vomit. I began clawing at my hamstrings and when I turned my head I was looking into the irridescent eyes of a grotesque animal screeching "Ruh Roh! Ruh Roh!" in a hoarse irritating dog-accented gibberish. That's when it things began to turn weird.
The team heads down to Mexico on a special mission...

Hanna and Barbera liked my story on hormone doping at the '72 Laff-a-Lympics and proposed that I cover a Harlem Globetrotters game at a haunted Aztec pyramid in Mexico. They called me to their offices in Burbank. "Jesus Christ, you're killing us here, Duke," Hanna complained when I demanded a $1500 advance for the project. "I've got expenses," I said. They relented and arranged for a chirpy entourage to escort me into the belly of the beast. There was the lesbian chick, the blond Palos Verdes neck scarf Nixon boy and his frigid miniskirt girlfriend, the gawky soul patch hippie kid and his paranoid Great Dane. Lost Manson kids all, Squeakies and Leslies and a canine Tex in a puke green van hoping for some Mexican helter skelter. All the better reason to pack a few guns, I thought.
Check it out. Laughs all around.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Obstacles on the career path

To a certain extent, my enjoyment of working in the journalism field is tied to the fact that I get to put my name on top of the articles I write, and then get paid for it. There's a low level of some kind of celebrity involved in being a working reporter, regardless of how small or obscure the publication is that one works for.

That said, I'm nowhere near the "big leagues" occupied by the Important Journalists who have become household names. There's a vast and yawning chasm between my job and that of, say, a Bob Woodward or Christopher Hitchens. They are, and I think deservingly, the "rock stars" of the journalism business.

Whereas, I'm currently something like the fourth violin in some backwater philharmonic.

How does one make the leap from this low, entry-level position to that exalted talking-Beltway-head status? Apparently, there are a few requirements, but several ways to go about pulling it off.

To use the above examples, there's Mr. Woodward, who by all accounts took the traditional route to fame and quiet fortune -- working his way up through the Washington Post hierarchy and being fortunate enough to be involved in what was perhaps the biggest tip of the 20th century. While Watergate was certainly a career-defining moment for Mr. Woodward, one can't ignore the fact that he's also an incredibly diligent reporter.

Hitchens, on the other hand, while also serving as a reporter and foreign correspondent, seems to have rocketed to fame by aligning himself with certain political activist groups and by writing things that are hugely unpopular -- such as his remonstrations of people like Ghandi, Ronald Reagan, Mother Teresa, and God.

The fact that Hitchens is also an accomplished scholar and rhetorician shouldn't be forgotten, it's notable that other famous "journalists" have acquired at least similar levels of fame without the erudition or study that he has. Ann Coulter, the lawyer-turned-slime-spewing-harpy for the GOP, is probably near the top of that list.

So if certain levels of fame and renown are the goal, how should one set about determining a career path? There are a few immediate things to put on the "to-do" list:

- Accumulate various unrelated degrees, such as law, political science, or anthropology; anything that adds letters to one's suffix will apparently do;
- Take up several controversial positions and loudly denounce everyone who thinks differently.

On this second point, I don't mean to automatically discredit or brush away all of the positions taken up by writers I've mentioned here so far. To be sure, I think Hitchens has excellent arguments and bases for even his least-popular ideas. However, I'm not sure that his star would have risen to the heights it has if he hadn't been noticed for thinking things that a lot of people find shocking, and I'm absolutely positive that Coulter wouldn't have a career at all if it wasn't for her rather disgusting propensity to revile and insult people who are generally considered undeserving of such abuse. Things like that, it seems, make people sit up and take notice.

(I'll note here that re-reading the last paragraph, I'm regretful to have mentioned both Hitchens and Coulter in the same breath -- I'd hate for anyone to think I consider the two comparable in any way, shape, or form, other than for the fact that they're both noted political writers. Hitchens is a well-spoken, well-educated scholar who is willing to go on the attack; Coulter is a stupid brute whose published work bespeaks a seriously underdeveloped mind that might be more at home with similar chimps in front of the large black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Anyway, I've got at least half of my to-do list planned -- I'm hoping to earn a master's in political science within the next two years. Now, all I need is a few controversial positions. So far, I've only come up with one, which I hardly really believe myself: that the Beatles were an overrated group of average musicians whose catalog of music is at least half-full of songs that are actually very embarrassing on reexamination.

I don't think that's going to be enough to rocket me into journalistic stardom, though, so I'm going to have to spend some more time at the drawing board.

My problem is, I think, that the more I try to learn about current events, the more I'm faced with what I'm now convinced are glaring and inexcusable holes in my education. I never learned anything about the period between 1950 and 1980, for example, in any educational setting, save for a few scraps about the Vietnam war.

That makes it tricky to really feel confident about any ideas I have about the Middle East or Africa, which have been practically left out of any history curricula I've received. I do know that the more I learn -- on my own, that is -- about those two areas, the less I realize that I know. A little additional education, as it turns out, can be intellectually crippling; unless, that is, one undertakes to learn the whole kit and kaboodle. And who's got time for that?